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What would it take to soften the heart of this hardened boy who joined a secret society triad when he was just 13? Only a miracle, says Choby Siau. All photos courtesy of Choby Siau.

Choby Siau, 36, has a Chinese Singaporean father and a Polish American mother.

They were missionaries and so he grew up in different countries – Singapore, Taiwan, California, New Zealand, Malaysia. 

Choby with his brother and their Polish American mother and Chinese Singaporean father.

Though he grew up in a Christian household, Choby did not have fond memories of his younger days. 

“In Chinese culture, we are not very relational and nurturing. It was more about rules and doing what you are expected to do. My dad had an anger problem and he was the most violent person that I knew when I was growing up,” said Choby.

The report card

As a result, Choby did not feel safe at home. It did not help that he had severe dyslexia and could not read, write or do Maths. He also had a speech impediment which made communication challenging.

“I was very distant from my father so it was very hard for me to conceive that God loves me.”

The teachers in his school knew he had severe learning issues and put him in a special education class. He had only two other classmates – one was deaf and the other was blind.

His dyslexia was so bad that, for every assignment or exam, he needed the help of a teacher or parent to read each sentence to him or he could not comprehend the questions.

When Choby showed his first report card to his father when he was picked up from school, his father saw the bunch of bad grades and told him to wait at home.

“I knew what that meant; he was going to beat me. I went back to my room with intense anxiety and fear,” said Choby.

Knowing that his father’s beating would come down hard, the boy put books in his pants to protect himself.

Young Choby (far right) with his siblings.

Of course, his father made him remove them before giving him a thrashing. 

The next day, his mother allowed him to skip school because he was “black and blue” all over.

“It was very hard for me to understand what was going on as I put in a lot of effort in school. Yet when I opened up a book, I could not tell what it was saying. The thought of education brought much anxiety to me,” said Choby.

Choby’s family lived in one of these units in Mangere, Auckland.

When he was 11, his family moved to New Zealand for mission work. It was a totally new environment and culture for Choby. The accents were different and there were few Asians in his school.

Even as his teacher introduced him, he could hear the racial slurs.

The first gang

From grappling with culture shock to dealing with learning difficulties, from facing domestic problems to being bullied in school, Choby felt exposed and vulnerable.

When the kids in school started bullying his younger brother, Choby decided to fight back.

Using his fists for defence came naturally, given his speech impediment and his father’s violent tendencies.

Choby and his younger brother in New Zealand.

When Choby started fighting back to protect his brother, he noticed his opponents backing off. Over time, they even made friends with him. That was how Choby started his first “gang”.

Though his parents were missionaries, Choby never knew God personally, he confessed. He went to church and prayed at times, but God felt distant to him.

“Perhaps it was because I was distant from my father. So it was very hard for me to conceive that God loves me,” he added.

A year-and-a-half later, his parents had to uproot the family again, heading to Penang, Malaysia.

Triad at 13 

Soon after they moved to Penang, Choby got into a fight.

His older brother, who was involved with a local triad, brought along his gang members to watch the fight and make sure it did not get out of hand.

Choby with his older brother (right), who joined the secret society in Penang even before Choby did.

Choby’s school in Penang, from which he was expelled. It was also here, in front of the school, that he was recruited by a secret society gang.

During the fight, gang members began noticing Choby. When it was over, they approached him with the intention of recruiting him.

“The triad offered me protection and covering and … I saw protection as love.”

The triad there was involved in all manner of unsavoury activities – prostitution, extortion, drug dealing and white-collar crime. They recruited members at a young age and started training them early.

Choby was 13 years old when he was recruited. By Secondary Two, he was expelled from school.

“I saw that I didn’t have a future in school. The triad offered me protection and covering and that was exactly what I wanted because I felt so unprotected at home and in school. I saw protection as love,” said Choby.

“I thought that if I could watch and learn from my dai lou (triad boss) then maybe I could gain favour and opportunity to progress in the triad,” he added.

Over time, Choby indeed grew close to his dai lou, to the point where he was being groomed to be his right-hand man.

Choby with a fellow secret society member.

That meant that he was in charge of the fighting group – making sure their territory was protected and expanding the territory by fighting rivals.

Whenever the group’s leaders had a “business issue” that needed Choby’s group to exert intimidation or violence, they would call on him. In Penang, their triad had about 2,000 members.

An unexpected apology

Meanwhile, Choby’s relationship with his father continued to spiral downwards.

One day, when he returned home for his younger brother’s birthday, he and his father had a violent altercation.

Punching his son in the face, his father pressed his knee to Choby’s temple.

Exploding in anger, Choby retaliated by beating his father with a chair and throwing things out of the window.

Choby and his father.

To Choby’s surprise, his father came to apologise to him after the fight.

“It was the first time I heard him really apologise and from that point onwards, something happened to my father,” Choby said. “He began to calm down and not react to things the way he used to. I thought it was so weird as he was the most terrifying person in my life.

“Only God could have done something like this.” 

His father later confessed to him that he feared losing his family due to his anger issues and he sought to change. He realised that he could not raise his children the way he was raised and he began trying to connect genuinely with his children.

God eventually restored Choby’s relationship with his father.

That was the start of a new bond between Choby and his father. Today, Choby has a close relationship with both his parents.

“They were inviting fighting spirits into their lives so that when they fought with machetes, some wouldn’t even get cut.”

But there were other issues on the home front during those teenage years. Choby was experiencing tormenting episodes of sleep paralysis several times a week.

“It was to the point where I would slip out of my body and find myself actually looking at my sleeping body and the surrounding furniture. I would also be able to see the spirit world of demons. It was terrifying,” he said.

Having such regular experiences with the spirit world made Choby cautious and fearful of messing with spirits.

He would refuse to get the spiritual tattoos that most of the triad members sported.

“They would get hand tattoos and then invite spiritual leaders to blow spells on them and they would go into trances. Essentially, they were inviting fighting spirits into their lives so that when they fought with machetes, some wouldn’t even get cut,” said Choby.

Thirst for revenge

Even as Choby was being groomed as a key triad leader, God told his mother that he would be killed if the family remained in Malaysia. She took His word seriously and told the family to pack up and leave for the United States.

“I thought she was crazy as I didn’t think that God could speak to you like that.”

“I thought she was crazy as I didn’t think that God could speak to you like that. Furious, I took a metal pole and smashed up all the furniture in my room.

“But then I thought I could go to the US for the short-term to see if there were opportunities there. My long-term plan was to return to Penang as I thought my future was with my triad,” Choby recounted.

Between 20 and 30 of his friends came to the airport to send him off when he was due to depart.

Among them was a friend with whom he had grown up. This friend was not involved with gangs; he pressed a little New Testament Bible into Choby’s hands as a parting gift.

Choby and his former dai lou (triad boss).

When Choby reached the United States, he assumed that he would be flying to and from Penang to help with triad operations. 

Little did he know that he would soon find an urgent reason to head back to Penang.

After a number of long-distance calls to his girlfriend in Penang, he sensed that something was amiss. She seemed distracted and disinterested in their conversations. Suspecting that she was cheating on him, he called up his dai lou to help investigate the matter.

It turned out that his intuition was right. His dai lou discovered that Choby’s girlfriend was sleeping with a member from another triad.

Whatever it takes

“I just lost it. Among triads, we have our own laws. It doesn’t matter which triad you are from, you can never take a girl from a triad member. That’s breaking the law. And I actually fought this guy before so maybe he was doing it out of spite,” recalled Choby.

Choby planned to kill the man and leave his body in the jungle.

Consumed with bitterness, jealousy and anger, he called his then-girlfriend and told her: “I am going to fly back to Penang and I want you to tell him I have a present for him.”

Choby planned to kill the man and leave his body in the jungle.

But while he was ready to take matters into his own hands, he was also aware that the life he had built for himself was crumbling.

“Rising up the ranks of the triad suddenly seemed purposeless. I started questioning life as I knew it. At night, I was tormented by sleep paralysis. I hated myself for my learning difficulties. Even my plan of living with my girlfriend after moving back to Penang was falling apart.”

As Choby left his home in the US to fly back to Penang, he saw his mother crying at the door.

She knew he was going back to hunt someone down and feared it would be the last time she would see him, since God had warned her that his life was in danger in Penang.

She told Choby before he left: “Son, look at me. I want to tell you something. I prayed a prayer I have never prayed in my life. I prayed to God that He would do whatever it takes to bring you to Him.”

The little Bible

Shaken by his mother’s ominous parting words, Choby remembered he had a Bible and took it along “for good luck” on his flight.

“During those years, I always felt in danger and my mind was messed up with all the things I had done. I also feared situations that I couldn’t control, so I felt like the plane could crash any time,” he said.

Afraid that something bad was indeed going to happen during his trip, he pulled out the Bible in desperation during the flight.

Recalled Choby: “I can’t read. I have never read a book in my life. But as I was flipping through its pages, these words popped up: In three days I will heal you.

He could not believe what he was seeing; he had never been able to read a whole sentence before. He knew it was a miracle. 

“As I was flipping through the pages of the Bible, these words popped up: In three days I will heal you.

Choby closed the Bible and prayed: “God, if this is You speaking to me right now, and if in three days you take away my anger for this guy I am flying halfway round the world to find, I will let him go.”

When he arrived in Penang, his men were awaiting his instructions. He told them he needed a few days to settle down.

For two days, Choby was obsessed with thoughts of getting his hands on the man entangled with his girlfriend.

“I didn’t know how to control the burning anger. I imagined my relief after I got the guy.

“At the same time, I could not stop thinking about the sentence I had read. I had never read anything before and questioned if what I saw was real or not,” said Choby, who went to bed on the second night still seething with anger.

Inexplicable peace

When he woke up on the morning of the third day, however, he was astonished to find that he felt no anger. 

“It was as though I had never loved that girl or as though the betrayal had never happened.”

In its place was complete peace.

“I felt this thick peace. There was peace in my heart and even around my room.

“It was as though I had never loved that girl or as though the betrayal had never happened. It did not make sense to me but there was a state of refreshment and even hope.”

Filled with this inexplicable peace, Choby let the man go.

Choby would later read the New Testament (NT) many times over the years, and he was not able to find the verse. A similar phrase can be found in the Old Testament (Hosea 6:2) but in the airplane then, he had only had the NT with him.

Choby’s first Old Testament and New Testament Bible that he studied much later on.

“I clearly remember I saw those words. There is no way for me to explain it except to call it a miracle,” he said.

This encounter planted a seed in Choby’s heart that God had the power to work in his life.

However, at that time he was still not convinced to give his heart fully to God, due to his deep involvement in the secret society.

Would God continue to pursue and speak to this ex-triad leader? Read Part 2 of Choby’s story here.


It took a machete attack, a drug overdose and a horrific car accident before he would turn to God

What this gangster-turned-pastor saw in his late father’s secret cabinet moved him to tears

From secret society gangster to policeman, he now leads silent retreats

Nothing but “constant grace”: Gangster encounters God in prison, marries his counsellor and becomes a pastor

About the author

Janice Tai

Salt&Light senior writer Janice is a former correspondent who enjoys immersing herself in: 1) stories of the unseen, unheard and marginalised, 2) the River of Life, and 3) a refreshing pool in the midday heat of Singapore.